On Poetry – Part 4: The Sestina, and my love/hate relationship with this form

When it comes to reading poetry, sestinas are among some of the best poems I have ever read. But I must confess, when it comes to writing them, they really challenge me. I don’t think I have ever written a sestina I’ve been truly happy with, and I am hoping that will change some time during this month, with NaPoWriMo. But only time will tell.

In the meantime, however, I will attempt to explain how a sestina works, and show you one of my favourite sestinas, a rather clever and unusual one which actually shrinks (more on that later).

A sestina consists of 39 lines, including 6 stanzas of 6 lines each, followed by an envoi of 3 lines. All of these are unrhymed, but, and this is a big but, the same 6 words must be used to end each of the lines in the 6 stanzas, only in a changing pattern throughout the poem. This pattern is known as lexical repetition, and this is where it gets tricky. The first line of the second stanza must have the same end-word as the last line of the first stanza. The second line of the second stanza then has the same end-word as the first line of the first stanza. The third line of the second stanza ends on the same end-word as the second last line of the first stanza, the fourth line matches up with the second line of the first stanza, the fifth line with the third last line of the previous stanza, and the sixth line with the third line of the previous stanza. Make any sense? Have a look at this diagram to help clear it up a little:

This diagram above shows what lines from the previous stanza the current stanza should be taking its end-words from. The same goes for each stanza, taking from the previous stanza in the same manner, until you get to the envoi at the end which uses all six words again. If this still isn’t quite clicking into place, just stay with me – seeing it in action with the poem I’m going to use as an example might help clear this one up.

The effect of this is that the poem revolves around these six words or ideas, again moving in a circular motion as compared to the linear progression of other forms and free verse. Despite being invented in the twelfth century by a troubadour, the sestina remains popular today with poets because it accommodates conversational discourse within it so well. Everyday speech often repeats certain words, and so the sestina can seize upon this to create a poem that repeatedly questions and examines a thought or theme, in a way that the reader can relate to and understand with ease.

Now, onto the example. If you were struggling to understand how the sestina works before, read the poem below, then go back and re-read how it works, and see if you can match the way the end-words are moving around in the poem. This example is innovatively modern, cleverly shrinking the size of the lines as the poem goes on until, in the final stanza, there is only the 6 key words left.

The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina by Miller Williams

Somewhere in everyone’s head something points toward home,
a dashboard’s floating compass, turning all the time 
to keep from turning. It doesn’t matter how we come
to be wherever we are, someplace where nothing goes
the way it went once, where nothing holds fast
to where it belongs, or what you’ve risen or fallen to.

What the bubble always points to,
whether we notice it or not, is home.
It may be true that if you move fast
everything fades away, that given time
and noise enough, every memory goes
into the blackness, and if new ones come-

small, mole-like memories that come
to live in the furry dark – they, too,
curl up and die. But Carol goes
to high school now. John works at home
what days he can to spend some time
with Sue and the kids. He drives too fast.

Ellen won’t eat her breakfast.
Your sister was going to come
but didn’t have the time.
Some mornings at one or two
or three I want you home
a lot, but then it goes.

It all goes.
Hold on fast
to thoughts of home
when they comes.
They’re going to
less with time.


Forgive me that. One time it wasn’t fast.
A myth goes that when the quick years come
then you will, too.  Me, I’ll still be home.

So there we have it, my dodgy explanation of a form which I love and hate, and an example of a very clever way to use this form in poetry, both of which again come from the Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Strand and Boland that I so often refer to in these posts. When trying to write your own, there is a multitude of places to start. Some poets prefer to think of the six words, or themes, first, while others just prefer to dive in, write the first stanza, and then figure out what trouble they have found themselves in. Like with a lot of writing, it ultimately depends on what works for you.

I will most certainly be trying to write a sestina again during NaPoWriMo, so the question is, will any of my fellow participants (or even just other writers and poets) be willing to try their hand at this daunting but potentially rewarding form?

On Poetry – Part 3: The Villanelle – what is it, and what’s so good about it?

On Poetry – Part 3: The Villanelle – what is it, and what’s so good about it?

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, in just under three days time, I will be partaking in the Poetry Writing Month challenge, in which I write 30 poems in 30 days. Some awesome people have already agreed to participate in this as well, which is quite exciting, and I am looking forward to the challenge immensely.

As part of this challenge, I am going to write a few blogs about different poetic forms, trying to focus on some of the lesser known, but perhaps more enjoyable, forms. I will outline the rules for each one, show examples, and explain what it is I personally like about it, as well.

Perhaps my favourite form is the villanelle. This form includes a lot of repetition to enforce a somewhat circular structure, not allowing any linear progression of narrative, but instead bringing the focus back around to the same thoughts and emotions, and really honing in on these, adding to their power and poignancy. It is relatively easy to get the hang of, and despite being a four hundred year old form, it has seen a great rebirth in the last century, due to its almost song-like qualities (indeed, when it first appear centuries ago, it was likely to have been sung like a song).

The basics of it are as follows. A villanelle consists of 19 lines, broken into five stanzas of 3 lines each, and ending on a final stanza of four lines. The first line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas, while the last line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas, and these two repeated lines then both reappear to make the last two lines of the final stanza. As a result, the whole poem falls into an aba rhyme scheme, with one sound being repeated thirteen times and the other six times. More importantly, once you’ve written the first stanza, you’ve also written the last lines of every other stanza, and so you just have to go back and fill in the blanks, so to speak – the circular structure has already been created.

Before going into any more detail, I think now is a good time for a couple of examples. In the first poem, some of the repeated lines are tweaked a little – this is alright as long as it is roughly the same as the line it should be repeating. In the other poem the lines are repeated with precision.

One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practise losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

-Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight,
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Hopefully by reading through these two poems, you can see how this form works, how the repetition of the lines and the tight rhyming pattern keep a circular, musical feel to the villanelle. Hopefully you can see that this form isn’t restrictive – rather it is like a guide, to help steer thoughts and feelings in a particular way, while putting them down on the page. Hopefully these two poems, both from the twentieth century I might add, can demonstrate the different ways you can follow the rules of this form too – one follows it loosely, the other much more rigidly, yet both are powerful in their individual ways.

Since discovering this form, thanks to the book The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland, I have written maybe a dozen villanelles myself, and have utterly enjoyed writing them. No doubt I’ll write a few more over April, as well.

If you have never tried writing a villanelle before, have a go at writing one. You’ll be surprised how enjoyable it is, even if you’re not overly keen on writing or reading poetry. And if you do write one, I would love to read it, or even just hear about your experiences of attempting to write a villanelle, which can be as exciting as the final product itself.

Happy writing!

On poetry – Part 2: Great books for reading and writing poetry

In my last post, I discussed how important it is to both read and write poetry to fully understand and appreciate it. I also pondered on the fact that poetic form and structure is not really taught in school any longer, nor is actually writing poetry particularly encouraged, and that this perhaps contributes to the general feeling of ill-ease which most people feel towards poetry. Yet, as I admitted, despite spending the first two decades of my life loathing poetry, I eventually changed my attitudes through learning to write poetry in its many forms and following its many varying rules, and this in turn helped me to enjoy reading poetry, as well.

Now I would like to share some fantastic books that may help you to appreciate both reading and writing poetry, whether you’re a reluctant novice or a seasoned poet. I will begin with a book that takes us right back to the basics of poetry, then move on to an anthology of poetic forms, before moving on to a more broader volume of poetry that encompasses the art form from the last few millennia.

The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking The Poet Within by Stephen Fry

This probably won’t come as a much of a surprise, but Stephen Fry loves poetry, and it has long been a hobby of his. In this book, he strips poetry down to the absolute basics, breaking it into four sections. First, he introduces us to metre, including different metres, iambs, end-stopping, enjambment and caesuras, and much more. Secondly, he explains rhyme, including different categories of rhyme, arranging rhyme, and what makes good and bad rhyme. Next, he goes into form, covering the stanza, why to bother with form at all, ballads, heroic verse, odes, closed forms such as villanelles and sestinas (and many more), comic verse such as the cento and limericks, exotic forms such as the haiku and senryu, sonnets, and shaped verse. Lastly, he looks at diction and poetics in today’s world.

What makes this book great, apart from the fact that it breaks down poetry to the fundamentals, is that with each section Fry has included a number of poetry exercises to help you master it skill by skill. He even includes a “how to read this book” foreword that explains how to make the most of these exercises. To top it all off, he is very enthusiastic and quite entertaining in his explanations, writing in a precise and accessible manner that will enable poets of all levels to gain something from reading this book. An absolute must read for budding poets everywhere.

The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland

This book differs substantially from Fry’s book, and focuses much more on the actual poetic forms themselves. It is a book often used for studying poetry at a university level, but you don’t need to be a university student to get something out of this book – you just need to be curious and open-minded. It is perhaps the most comprehensive listing of poetic forms, covering most of the major verse poems,  shaping forms such as elegies, the pastoral, and the ode, and also open forms.

What is remarkably useful about this book is that for each poetic structure, a dozen or so poems of that form are supplied to help you come to grips with how the form works. Often the poems range dramatically in terms of when they were written, so as to show how the form has evolved over time, and so often you will find classical poetry mixed in with quirky, contemporary poems that play around with the conventions of each form. This is definitely a book for those who feel a bit more confident with the basics of poetry and want more of a challenge.

Poetry For The Spirit: Poems of Universal Wisdom and Beauty edited by Alan Jacobs

This book is only an anthology of poetry to read, but it is an amazing anthology. It focuses on spiritual poetry, and ranges from over 4000 years ago to the twentieth century, presenting the poetry in chronological order, from pre medieval times, to medieval times, and then century by century. As a large amount of poetry throughout history has explored this side of human existence, whether directly, or indirectly through themes of nature and life itself, this anthology says just as much about the evolution of poetry as it does the evolution of spirituality. I would recommend this book to anybody looking for some inspiration in their poetry writing, as you are bound to find some here.


So, there we have it. I will probably do more posts in the future on poetry, and perhaps will explain some of my favourite poetic forms, to illustrate why I believe knowing poetic form is so important to enjoying poetry on any level. But for now, if you have always wanted to write poetry but have never known where to start, these books should help set you on your way, especially the first two books.

Do you know of any books that look at poetry that you have found particularly useful?